Lebanon News

Hollande offers to help end political standoff

France's President Francois Hollande (L) welcomes Lebanon's Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant, prior to their meeting at the Elysee presidential Palace on April 28, 2015 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

BEIRUT: French President Francois Hollande conveyed his country’s readiness to help end Lebanon’s 11-month presidential deadlock to the Maronite patriarch Tuesday, and reiterated France’s support for the Lebanese Army.

The National News Agency reported that Hollande spoke to Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai of the deep bonds between Lebanon and France, voicing his country’s readiness to launch international initiatives to help accelerate the election of a Lebanese president.

At an hourlong meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Hollande stressed to Rai that France would not meddle in Lebanon’s internal affairs, but believed that the election of a president would help restore the normal functioning of the country’s constitutional institutions. The French president added that his country would continue to stand by Lebanon and support the Army against terrorism.

For his part, Rai urged Hollande to help Lebanon elect a president as quickly as possible and provide further assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The patriarch returned to Lebanon after the meeting.

A short statement released by the Palace said Hollande and Rai discussed the “dramatic” condition of minorities in the Middle East, particularly the situation of Christians residing there. “Hollande reiterated his firm [commitment] to protect the Christians of the Orient.”

The French president also expressed to Rai France’s determination to help Lebanon cope with the Syrian refugee crisis and other repercussions of the Syrian war.

Elsewhere, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri wrapped up his week-long visit to the U.S. Tuesday, attending a round table discussion hosted by the Washington D.C. office of the Arab ICT Association and the National U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce.

During his trip, Hariri spoke with U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, on ways to protect Lebanon from regional turmoil.

In a speech Monday evening, Hariri highlighted the importance of supporting Lebanese institutions, particularly the Army, saying the military was playing an advanced role in the fight against terrorism.

“Hariri also talked about the challenges caused by the Syrian refugees ... this issue was discussed with U.S. officials and [Hariri] asked the international community to address this problem in Lebanon and [other] neighboring countries,” his press office said in a statement.

Hariri’s remarks came during a dinner in Washington, held in his honor by Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid.

Following its weekly meeting, Hariri’s Future bloc called on Lebanon’s government to restore the normal functioning of public finances by approving the 2015 draft budget and referring it to Parliament for final endorsement, adding that it should include the proposed salary scale for the public sector in line with the Constitution and the Public Accounting Law.

“This will clearly show the Lebanese people and all relevant officials all the expected expenses and revenue sources, along with means to address the deficit,” the bloc said in a statement.

Lebanon has not had an official budget since 2005 due to political standoffs, repeated security incidents and Parliament’s failure to meet and discuss bills. Cabinet, which will convene Wednesday, has so far failed twice to approve the draft budget and political factions are divided on whether to include the figures from the salary scale.

The Future bloc also condemned continued verbal attacks by Hezbollah on Saudi Arabia and the military operation it’s leading against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, saying such “reckless and irresponsible” behavior harmed the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese.

A delegation from the Bekaa Valley and Rashaya, including Future bloc MPs and religious figures, visited the Saudi Embassy in Beirut to show their support for the kingdom.

Addressing the delegation, Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri said his country was eager to protect Lebanon’s stability.

“We stress the eagerness of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz] to preserve Lebanon’s security, stability, and prosperity.”

In another development, Speaker Nabih Berri was quoted by his visitors as saying that there were signs that MPs loyal to Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement could soften their stance on boycotting an upcoming legislative session.

“I am hearing good talk from the Free Patriotic Movement and I hope it will be transformed into action,” Berri was quoted as saying.

“Tomorrow, a delegation from the Free Patriotic Movement might take part in the Wednesday meeting of MPs,” Berri said, referring to a weekly meeting at his residence.

He added that he realized Aoun’s bloc does not oppose holding the legislative session in principle, but wants a draft law on the agenda allowing foreigners of Lebanese origin to gain citizenship.

Berri said that he supported placing the bill on the agenda, but added that it was still being studied by Parliament’s joint committees.

Aoun’s parliamentary bloc also met Tuesday, and warned after its meeting that all options were on the table if the terms of security officials were extended.

“The issue is not in discussion ... extension is forbidden,” Aoun said after chairing the weekly meeting. “As for steps we will take [in case the extension happens], all options are possible and I will not detail them,” he added angrily.

The lawmaker dismissed accusations that he opposed the extension of Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi’s term, which expires in September, in order to have his son in law, Brig. Shamel Roukoz, appointed to the top post.

“I did not say I want my son-in-law [to become Army commander], I said I want an Army commander to be appointed in line with the law,” Aoun said.

He added that he would not alter his stance on the issue, regardless of the positions of his allies. “I can abandon people just the way they can abandon me, and I can support whoever supports me.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2015, on page 3.

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